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LeBron Can Teach Business Execs a Thing or Two

07/19/2014 01:23 EDT | Updated 09/17/2014 05:59 EDT
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Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James throws powder into the air duriing an NBA basketball game against the New Jersey Nets on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2010 in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Turns out you can go home again.

When basketball superstar LeBron James packed his bags and left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, he did more than just burn bridges. Retreating armies have left less destruction in their wake.

His decision to switch teams certainly paid off as he led the Heat to two consecutive NBA championships, cementing his status as the best player in the game today. However, this success further fanned the flames of hatred among Cavaliers fans who considered the Ohioan a traitor to his home state.

In one of the greatest PR coups of the year, LeBron is returning home as a conquering hero.

Sports is full of surprises -- and high drama -- but this turn of events even overshadows the decision by Uruguay's Luis Suarez to bite a rival soccer player for the third time, earning him an expulsion from the World Cup.

LeBron's masterful handling of his return offers a case study in public relations far beyond sports. The lesson is simple: humility is powerful.

A 965-word letter posted by Sports Illustrated, and co-authored by a senior SI writer, anchored LeBron's resurrection. Though it was certainly dripping with sentimentality -- and more than a bit self serving -- at its heart it contained what is increasingly rare these days: a humble and honest plea for forgiveness.

"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."

This wasn't an apology. Indeed, he admits if given a choice, he would do it all over again. He even goes so far as to warn Cavs fans to temper expectations of an NBA championship.

If PR experts wore uniforms to work, whoever provided LeBron with counsel deserves to have their jersey hanging from the rafters of the Cavs home arena. And full credit to LeBron for listening. Judging by the reaction on social media and the front pages of Ohio (among other) newspapers, all is indeed forgiven.

In contrast, the same cannot be said for the soon-to-be-former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, whose feeble attempts at apologizing for his racist rants boggle the mind. Humility was most definitely lacking in this instance.

Now, we can thank the NBA for providing two superb case studies for the best and worst in reputation management.

The tactics for optimally handling issues can vary greatly, but the strategy is simple. The public is eager to forgive, and honesty and sincere context go a long way. IF you really want to take the ball all the way down the court, it is humility that helps your critics actually forget.

For successful business leaders, being humble doesn't always come naturally. And it isn't a quality that you can easily fake, and those who try and fail get punished even more.

Humility is widely considered a virtue, just not in the business world. This needs to change.

When a crisis hits a company, it is only natural that senior management's instinct is to provide strong leadership, batten down the hatches and go into damage control mode.

Apologies must be made, but they usually start off as veiled attempts at making excuses. The crisis may not even be their fault, making it even more difficult to fully accept responsibility.

But whatever language the lawyers finally allow, the bottom line is that the message must be delivered with humility no matter how tempting it is to fiercely defend the brand with every question from the media, employees and the public at large.

In the long run, that humility may well help create an even stronger brand.

After all, everyone loves a comeback story. Just ask a Cavaliers fan.

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